Founders on Education

With all the controversy over education reform and the place of religion in public schools, it is helpful to turn to the words of our founding fathers for their opinion on religion and public education. For example, according to historian David Barton, Benjamin Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, helped found five colleges, and was the first founder to propose free public schools. In his publication entitled A Defense of the Use of the Bible as a Schoolbook, he wrote the following: "Before I state my arguments in favor of teaching children to read by means of the Bible, I shall assume the ... following propositions: First, that Christianity is the only true and perfect religion, and that in proportion as mankind adopt its principles and obeys its precepts, they will be wise and happy; Second, that a better knowledge of this religion is to be acquired by reading the Bible than in any other way; Finally, that the Bible contains more knowledge necessary to man in his present state than any other book in the world ..."1

Gouverneur Morris was a founder whose name is less familiar to us than that of other founders, but who was the most active member of the Constitutional Convention, speaking 173 times on the floor of the Convention. In fact, it is his penmanship which graced the original draft of the Constitution. How did this founder feel about the Bible and public education? Gouverneur Morris stated, "Religion is the only solid basis of good morals; therefore, education should teach the precepts of religion, and the duties of man towards God." 2 Apparently the man who literally wrote the Constitution was not overly concerned about the "separation of church and state," believing that the goal of education is to teach the duties of man toward his Creator.

Founder Noah Webster was a soldier during the American Revolution, spent nine terms in the Connecticut legislature, three terms in the Massachusetts legislature, and four terms as a judge. Webster was very prolific as an educational textbook writer and as an educator. He was also outspoken about the importance of Christianity to education and government. In the preface to his famous dictionary, Webster stated, "The Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government, ought to be instructed ..." 3 Webster was so convinced of this truth that he even included Bible verses in textbooks he wrote, including his Webster's Blue-back Speller, which was the standard spelling textbook in America until the 1930s!

Thomas Jefferson is often cited as a strict separationist who insisted on religion and government being kept apart. During George Washington's term as president, Jefferson was president of the District of Columbia school board. As such, he made the Bible one of the primary reading texts for the District of Columbia public schools. Why? In his own words, Jefferson noted, "I have always said, and always will say, that the studious perusal of the sacred volume will make us better citizens." 4 Jefferson also used to be remembered for saying, "And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis--a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that His justice cannot sleep forever." 5

Not only did the founding fathers believe that the Bible was the basis for a good public education, at one time the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. The Court was asked to interpret a will which left seven million dollars to the city of Philadelphia for the establishment of a school where morality was to be taught without religious influence. The Court held that it could not be done, saying, "Why may not the Bible, and especially the New Testament ... be read and taught as a Divine revelation in the [school]--its general precepts expounded ... and its glorious principles of morality inculcated? ...Where can the purest principles of morality be learned so clearly or so perfectly as from the New Testament?" 6 In the words of Abraham Lincoln, "The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next." 7

Endnotes

  1. Benjamin Rush, Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical (Philadelphia: Printed by Thomas and William Bradford, 1806) pp. 93-94.
  2. Jared Sparks, The Life of Gouverneur Morris (Boston: Gray and Bowen, 1832),Vol. III, p. 483.
  3. Noah Webster, American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828, Reprinted San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1967), preface, p.12.
  4. Herbert Lockyer, Last Words of Saints and Sinners (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1969), p. 98.
  5. Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson's Writings, Merril D. Peterson, ed. (NY:Literary Classics of the United States, 1984) p. 289 from Jefferson's "Notes on the State of Virginia," Query XVIII, 1781.
  6. Vidal v. Girard's Executors; 43 U.S. 126, 200 (1844).
  7. Steve McDowell and Mark Beliles, America's Providential History(Charlottesville, VA: Providence Press, 1989) p. 83.


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